RACINE — Silence descended on the fourth-floor courtroom as Joan Barry stood holding a long black robe, about to ceremonially pass a torch.
The crowd of more than 150 packed into the wood-paneled courtroom watched the moving scene Friday as she helped Michael Piontek slip on his new robe — the mark of becoming Racine County circuit judge for Branch 5. Piontek takes the same seat that Barry’s husband, Circuit Judge Dennis Barry, had until his death last year.
After helping him into the garment, she extended her hand to congratulate him on attaining the goal he tried twice to reach.
Instead, Piontek leaned down to hug Joan Barry, his face taut with emotion.
“He was a giant in this community. He was a mentor. He turned down an appointment to the Supreme Court to serve this county,” Piontek said solemnly of Barry during his investiture at the courthouse, 730 Wisconsin Ave., the formal ceremony during which he was sworn in as judge. “I hope to serve in that same light that he served in for so many years.”
Dennis Barry, 64, died Aug. 18 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His death was ruled a suicide.
Afterward, then-District Attorney Mike Nieskes was appointed to fill the Branch 5 vacancy. However, Nieskes lost to Piontek in the April 3 election. Joan Barry served as treasurer for Piontek’s election campaign.
Piontek’s six-year term began Aug. 1.
Barry’s daughter, Rebecca Barry Olson, 30, said she is scheduled to fly to Sweden Saturday, but drove up to Racine because attending Piontek’s investiture was a special, important step in closing the chapter on her dad’s career. Plus, the two families are longtime friends, she said.
“He’s kind of taken us under his wing and checked on us,” Barry Olson, who now lives in Chicago and works in advertising, said of Piontek. “He actually talks to my brother every day and checks in on my mom. We’re just as proud of him as we would be of our own father.”
Piontek, who graduated from law school in 1974, has worked in the Racine County legal community for almost 40 years. He started his career working in the Racine County District Attorney’s Office.
Racine City Attorney Robb Weber said Piontek ran against Dennis Barry for district attorney in 1978. He said Piontek won, but then lost to Barry after a recount.
Piontek said the most humbling aspect about becoming a judge is that Racine County residents thought of him highly enough to elect him to a post with the power to affect so many people’s lives.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling. You get elected and then wait four months to get invested,” he said.
Piontek is married to Mary Olson, 62, who works as a program coordinator in bioethics at the Medical College of Wisconsin. They have two daughters, Jennifer and Rachel, and two granddaughters, Kristen and Allison. Their granddaughters, ages 6 and 4, helped present their grandpa’s gavel on Friday.
“He’s willing to do the right thing, even when (it’s) unpopular,” his wife said.
Noting that her husband loves to hunt and fish, Olson added: “and if you ever have trouble sleeping, he can tell you the difference between a deer rub and a deer scrape” — sparking laughter from the crowd.